DES MOINES — A nationally known religious rights group is suing the Iowa Civil Rights Commission on behalf of a Grimes couple who refused to host a same-sex couple’s wedding.
The 11-count lawsuit by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty was filed late Monday in Polk County Circuit Court and wants the Iowa Civil Rights Commission to rule the refusal of Betty and Richard Odgaard is not a violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
Additionally, lawyers for the Odgaards want the commission to declare the couple didn’t engage in discrimination and award them “nominal damages” for the loss of their free speech and free exercise of rights under both the Iowa and U.S. constitutions.
The Odgaards’ own and operate the Gortz Haus Gallery, a 77-year-old church they’ve turned into an art gallery after they purchased it in 2002. The Mennonite couple offers wedding services at the building but refused to host a one for a same-sex couple from Des Moines who tried to rent the building in early August.
The incident made headlines locally and was picked up by national outlets, such as the online news site Huffington Post. Lee Stafford filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Commission claiming a violation of his and his partner’s rights as a gay couple.
Stafford could not be immediately reached.
Emily Hardman, spokeswoman for the Becket Fund, said the organization doesn’t want to eliminate “sexual orientation” as a protected class in Iowa and said the Odgaards are opposed to hosting the ceremony because of their Mennonite beliefs.
“The Odgaards have long hired and served gays and lesbians, and are happy to serve all persons regardless of their sexual orientation,” Hardman wrote in an email. “The only remedy they are seeking is not to be forced by the government to host a religious ceremony that would violate their own beliefs. The Iowa Civil Rights Act supports this remedy, as it expressly states that the Act is not intended to force individuals to recognize same-sex marriage.”
The Becket Fund is named after Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who was killed in 1170 by supporters of England’s King Henry II over disagreements the two had about the rights of the church and the power of the state.
According to the suit, the Odgaards also have been targeted with “hateful and threatening email messages,” which has chilled their religious speech.
“Just as the Odgaards cannot be forced to display art that violates their religious convictions, they should not be forced to host religious ceremonies that violate their religious convictions,” Hardman wrote. “To our knowledge, no Iowa or Federal court has ever forced anyone to participate in a religious activity against their will. Doing so now would abandon Iowa’s history of being the vanguard of protecting individual freedom, and out of line with state and federal law.”